Micro-level processes: Niche theory, adaptation, and survival

The structural elements of interest systems - their density and diversity - are emergent properties. That is, density and diversity are community- level properties that arise from more micro-level events bearing on individual interest organizations that are initially mobilized (or not), engage in political activity (or not), and survive (or not). At the same time, a key assumption of the organization ecology approach is that the emergent properties of density and diversity feedback to this micro-level and influence rates of mobilization, political engagement, and survival. This notion was expressed for biological populations in ecologist Paul Colinvaux's (1978: 12) observation that "the way in which an animal breeds has very little to do with how many of it there are. This is a very strange idea to someone new to it, and needs to be thought about carefully. The reproductive effort makes no difference to the eventual size of the population. . . . The numbers that may live are set by the environment and these are quite independent of how fast a species makes babies." In our terms, this means that we are unlikely to understand interest community density and diversity by simply assuming an intrinsic rate of mobilization and then perpetual survival, as Olson (1982: 40) asserted. Rather, both attributes are variables meriting our attention. Mobilization rates vary with the density of interest systems (Lowery et al. 2004, 2008), and most interest organizations do not survive for very long (Gray and Lowery 1995b; Lowery and Gray 2001; Anderson et al. 2004; Berkhout and Lowery 2011).

This means, however, that much of the "action" of the organization ecology of interest representation must take place at the microlevel. The population/organization ecology lever used to understand this "action" is niche theory (Gray and Lowery 1996b, 1997).4 Based on biologist Evelyn Hutchinson's (1957) conception of a niche "as an attribute of the population (species) in relation to its environment," the theory highlights competition among similar species or organizations for an n-dimensional array of resources that each needs for survival. Niche theory, then, constitutes a significant departure from prior analyses of competition among organized interests by highlighting not policy competition among very different kinds of organizations (such as polluting industries and environmental groups), but competition among similar organizations for the resources they need to survive: members, sponsors, funds, and access. Importantly, not all organizations are able to secure viable space on the array of resources needed to survive and, therefore, fail to do so, especially as interest systems become dense or more crowded. It is this competition and the resulting mobilization and survival rates that produce the emergent properties of density and diversity.

Clearly, then, an understanding of niche competition is a central element of the population ecology research program on interest representation (Bosso 2005). But it is also the element of the theory that is least developed. In part, this is because studying the emergent community- level properties of density and diversity and the micro-level processes of niche competition entail attention to very different units of analysis and, thus, to very different kinds of data. And while gathering population- level data is hardly simple or easy (Halpin and Jordan 2012a), studying individual interest organizations and their adaptations to competition is surely even more difficult. Thus, organization ecology scholars have been more attentive to the emergent properties of interest system density and diversity than to the micro-level processes addressed by niche theory that generate those properties.

Three chapters in this volume address this important gap in organization ecology research on interest representation. In chapter 5, Thomas Holyoke addresses, at the broadest level, both theory and empirical evidence on interest organization competition and cooperation as found in the existing literature on interest representation and several ongoing research programs. But interest organization competition may have implications beyond survival per se. Indeed, the larger organization ecology literature has long debated whether selection from populations or adaptation to environmental constraints is more likely in response to niche competition (Aldrich and Pfeffer 1976), a debate that continues in the literature on interest representation (Halpin and Jordan 2009). William Maloney addresses the latter in chapter 6 by examining how competition often encourages interest organizations to become more professional in both their structures and behaviors, changes that have significant implications for how well they represent interests. While the population ecology approach to understanding the politics of interest representation is often characterized by large-n research (Halpin and Jordan 2012a), the larger literature on lobbying has long been richly endowed with case studies of individual interest organizations. While these were more often than not written for other purposes, these intensive studies surely contain insights into the nature of interest organization survival that bear on niche theory. Accordingly, Christopher Witko re-examines this rich case literature in chapter 7 to see what it might tell us about niche theory specifically and organizational ecology more generally. By doing so, he provides an important bridge linking several generations of research on the politics of interest representation.

 
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